Books, from "The Author to Her Book," a poem by Anne Bradstreet
The Author to Her Book, by Anne Bradstreet, takes us back to the 1650’s, when to be able to write, spell and read was unusual; to have the time and financial resources to put quill to paper was even less frequent; and to be a woman possessed of both literary skills and money – well, Anne Bradstreet was singular. A Puritan mother of eight, she herself never published a book, but she wrote poetry which was improperly collected by a relative and published in a book. Her regretful poem touches on several subthemes of Books.
Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ’mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door.
Authors’ Struggles: Writing a publication-worthy book demands much from the author. A well-written, well-plotted, thoughtful book demands sweat and sacrifice. Authors have toiled for years on their all-consuming creations. Many Books points out that Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell took 10 Years, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz also took a decade and won a Pulitzer, The Lord of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien consumed 12-17 years. Not only does life get in the way, but often authors invest time and money in research, including archival and original background research, interviews or travel.
Even after pouring countless hours and their heart into their cherished book, almost to a person book authors get mostly rejection notes from publishers, if they hear anything at all. Reflect on a few famous books whose authors had to persevere: Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, was rejected by almost 40 publishers before it finally hit the shelves and won a Pulitzer Prize. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was flunked by upwards of 25 publishers before finally being accepted. It became the first book in a successful series, won a Newberry Medal, and inspired a film adaptation. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling, was rejected by more than ten publishing-house muggles.
Authors have to find time to write, hone their craft, and survive financially while they dream of a low-probability breakthrough. Worse, just because a manuscript emerges as a bound book, sales likely come slowly and the author might even die without witnessing the triumph. Notable posthumous books include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (awarded a Pulitzer), The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Persuasion by Jane Austen.
Prizes and Awards: Bradstreet earned nothing from her relative’s publishing a book of her poetry and certainly no contemporary recognition. In the 21st century, a world awash in books honors a few of them with prestigious awards. The Nobel Prize in literature bestows huge prestige for a book’s author. Book winners include Being and Nothingness (Jean Paul Sartre), The Good Earth (Pearl Buck), Dr. Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), Just So Stories (Rudyard Kipling), Lord of the Flies (William Golding), and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). For American writers, a Pulitzer Prize in fiction or non-fiction glorifies an authorial resume. Notable winners in fiction include The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), A Bell for Adano (John Hersey), The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee). Many literati would rank even higher the Man Booker prize for fiction books in English. A few well-known winners include The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood), and Life of Pi (Yaan Martel). More recently, the Neustadt International Prize for literature was first awarded in 1970 by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today (a publication of that University). Among its biennial winners have been Octavio Paz, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Copyright and Screen Rights: The book of Bradstreet’s poems came out about 300 years too soon for cashing in on ancillary rights. Nor was it protected in the colonies: only in 1710 did the British Statute of Anne which granted authors certain rights; even so, it did not apply to the American colonies. The most precious legal right of authors is to protect what they have written from other people reproducing it improperly. Copyright laws allow artists and authors to have exclusive rights to the work they have made, to create and sell copies of their work, and to perform or display or display their work publicly. The statutory basis of copyright laws is codified in the 1976 Copyright Act (Title 17 §§101–1332). When you or your publisher copyright your writing, you can sue someone who uses your words wrongly. Copyright lawsuits filed in U.S. district courts have numbered between 2,000 and 6,000 per year over the past 25 years. Many of the most publicized copyright lawsuits claims intellectual property theft of music. As one notable example, in 1976 George Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and had to pay \$1,599,987 of the earnings from “My Sweet Lord” to Bright Tunes for its song, “He’s So Fine”.
A second right of an author is to license the book for adaptation to a movie or television show. The lure of wealth from film and television is the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow. E. L. James pocketed \$5 million for the screen rights to the Fifty Shades trilogy and the J. K. Rowling cashed in \$1.3 million for the first four Harry Potter books. Dan Brown received \$6 million for allowing The Da Vinci Code to be adapted, while John Grisham earned \$3.75 million in 1993 for The Chamber. But such staggering sums come very rarely. Advances on books can be paltry or, for notable authors, sizeable.
Censorship: Various governments around the world, generally totalitarian, ban books that they deem politically or religiously offensive. Reproduction of the banned work, translation of it, or even possession might bury you in prison. Notoriously, after Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, came out in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. He went into hiding for years. Wikipedia reports Numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulted in response to the (claimed sacrilegious) novel.
China rigidly controls what appears on the internet in that country, and interdicts books routinely. Other authoritarian regimes likewise prohibit the circulation of books deemed treasonous or against the principles of the state. But the United States is not exempt. Libraries are pressured to remove books. The American Library Association decries the removal of books from school libraries, out of concerns by residents that they are harmful to young readers, even though the books may be revered classics. The cancel culture on the left has its counterparts on the Puritan right. Book burning continues around the globe.
A remarkable woman, writing in the first few decades of settlers in the New World, enjoyed no copyright protection of the personal writings she labored over. She mourns the pre-mature outing of her poems in an unauthorized book.
If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Books, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.
We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:
- Alcohol: Mr. Flood’s Party, by Edwin Arlington Robinson
- Beauty: She Walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron
- Birds: Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats
- Bridges: The Concord Hymn, a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Chance: Hap, by Thomas Hardy
- Churches: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold
- Clothes: Upon Julia’s Clothers, by Robert Herrick
- Dancing: My Papa’s Waltz, by Theodore Roethke
- Death: Death, be not proud, by John Donne
- Decisions: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost
- Destruction: Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Fire: When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats
- Friends: Alone, by Maya Angelou
- Money: Money O!, by W. H. Davies
- Night: Invictus, by William Ernest Henley
- Rivers: Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Sailing Ships: Old Ironsides, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
- Silence: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by John Donne
- Sleep: The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats
- Soldiers: The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- Sports: To an Athlete Dying Young, by A. E. Housman
- Thinking: An Essay on Man, Epistle II, by Alexander Pope
- Time: To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell
- Trains: The Railway Train, by Emily Dickinson
- Vision: Sonnet XIX, On His Blindness, a poem by John Milton
- Wind: Ode to the West Wind, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Work: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost